Student Voices

In Watts, it’s easier being a pregnant teen than a college student

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If I were to get pregnant, I would know just where to go for help: the local Women, Infants, and Children food and nutrition service offices, Planned Parenthood, and the Family Resource Center are all places where I stood in line for hours as a child growing up in Watts. But finding local resources for higher education is a harder task. I know from experience. As one of the few community college students in Watts, I can’t find a place to print out an essay or get college-related advice.

Recently, a friend suggested I get pregnant instead of aiming for college. “Girl, the government will take care of you, trust me,” she told me.

Shanice Joseph stands in front of the Watts library, which only has two computers available to adults. (Photo: Daniela Gerson)

Shanice Joseph stands in front of the Watts library, which only has two computers available to adults. (Photo: Daniela Gerson)

Initially, I thought her idea had many flaws, but she is right that in my community, there is a plethora of resources for young parents, and barely any for college students. One in five births in Watts are to teen mothers, which gives the area the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Los Angeles County, according to Luis Rivera, a program officer at First 5 LA, a nonprofit agency that promotes early childhood education. And South LA, the area where Watts is located, has by far the highest rate of teen pregnancy in LA County. As a result, there are at lease five government assistance programs and nonprofit agencies targeted for mothers my age or younger on my block.

If I had children, I would qualify for subsidized rent for a two- to three-bedroom apartment in our complex. You have to have a low income – and you have to have dependents – to live where we do. I could also qualify for a Section 8 voucher, where the government pays up to 70% of your rent. To me, that’s like hitting the lottery. I live with my grandmother who is going through chemotherapy — and if she passes away, I would likely be kicked out of our complex because I don’t have children.

I know these resources are needed for the survival of single-parent families living in poverty. My own mother heavily relied on them to care for me and my six siblings, and my grandmother did too. But I also see that these government assistance programs often reinforce a cycle of poverty without offering a way out for young people like myself who want to pursue higher education and a career.

My grandmother has always emphasized the importance of a college education. Like most adults in the area, she did not go to college herself. According to census data compiled by the Los Angeles Times, 2.9 percent of residents in Watts 25 and older have a four-year degree. My grandmother is among the 97.1 percent of residents without a degree, but she did the best that she could to help me navigate the college search and application process. Still, without a college education she is at a disadvantage when it comes to providing continuous academic assistance in college. When I want any advice regarding college I often have to go outside of my community because the resources in Watts are designed to help young parents, high school dropouts, those who are unemployed, have criminal records, young children, or other categories of people that I do not fit into.

Growing up, the only person that I knew with a college degree in my neighborhood was my auntie. I wanted to be just like her. She went to the local high school initially but switched to a different district when a college counselor at our local high school told her she would have a better chance of graduating and going on to college if she left. After obtaining her master’s degree from University of California Los Angeles, she reinforced my grandmother’s push for me to attend college. Both my grandmother and aunt decided that I would be more likely to reach college if I went to school out of the area. So I enrolled in a small charter school over 10 miles away from my house. Although it took two-hours on the bus to get to and from school I loved attending a school that provided assistance for college-bound students, including a $500 scholarship upon graduation– something I wished my own local school provided.

Getting into college was difficult; staying enrolled in college has been much harder.  As a college student today, you need a computer and Internet. (My own school has several luxurious computers but it is over an hour away on the bus.) My neighborhood library, which is a five-minute walk from my house, has free Wi-Fi, which is great if you have a computer, but most community members do not. There are only two outdated computers available to adults, each with a 15-minute time limit—not a lot of time if a person has an essay to type up, needs to complete their FAFSA form, or wants to use the Internet to find places that actually do offer assistance to college students.

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A few blocks from my apartment, Thomas Riley High School offers several beneficial programs that promote college success and help students’ transition from high school to college: mentoring programs through University of Southern California, Cal State University Dominguez Hills, and one-on-one college and career counseling. I could definitely benefit from these resources and assistance, but these programs are not for me because Thomas Riley High School is “a learning community for pregnant and teen moms.” Teen moms have access to local resources that can help one succeed, but what about those who do not have children? How are they supposed to find their way?

I spoke with one of the very few other people my age in the neighborhood who is also attending college, and she has had similar experiences. Shanese Diamond, like me, was born to a teenage mother who participated in many government assistance programs. And she believes that path would be easier. “I don’t have any kids [and] there are limited resources for me, whereas if I had kids I would be a qualified applicant for Section 8 and other welfare programs that are beneficial,” Shanese told me.

Shanese believes there could be a better way to offer support for young adults, referring to the old saying, “If you give a man a fish he will eat tonight, but if you teach a man to fish he will eat forever.” If someone like me wants lessons on how to fish they have to go outside of Watts.

As I continue to struggle through college, I wonder why there aren’t more resources to help me succeed, especially in an area with such a low rate of college graduates. According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, “A college education is the gateway to the American middle class, with college graduates earing substantially more than those without a degree. But low-income students are 28 percent less likely to finish college than those in higher income brackets.”

My solution? We need to provide Section 8 vouchers for college students in neighborhoods like mine. Make it so we can rent a decent one-bedroom apartment. And create a resource center with computers and guidance counselors. I don’t think that’s asking for a lot. Actually, I think it’s a great idea: It would create an incentive for kids growing up in poverty, and it would help young people like me complete school once we get there.

This story was produced by Intersections South LA Reporter Corps, a program of USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism that trains young adults to report on their own communities and The Hechinger Report.

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